Culture

As the world burns, we make it all about ourselves on Twitter

Twitter cynicism has its seasons, but apocalyptic catchphrases like "we're fucked" aren't helping anybody.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

On September 18, my girlfriend announced Ruth Bader Ginsberg's death from our living room couch, prompting me immediately and forcefully to declare, in no uncertain terms, like a character from David Milch's Deadwood: "FUCK."

I knew her passing would occur sooner rather than later. I knew that, were RBG to die anytime before a (still far from certain) Joe Biden inauguration on January 20, 2021, she would be illegitimately replaced by a hardline conservative dedicated to dismantling what few left-leaning institutions remain in this country. I was upset, I was angry, I was scared, and I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I also knew sundown approached, and being moderately-observant Jewish, I hoped for a relatively calm Shabbat free from chaotic social media.

I checked my phone not long after lighting the candles. My timeline — a carefully insulated, artificial echo chamber built from over a decade's worth of follows, replies, retweets, algorithmic reinforcement, and dopamine jolts — basically boiled down to variations of "We're fucked," "We are so fucked," "Fuck this," and "Lol RBG died we're so fucked." L'chaim.

Twitter

So it goes in the age of Meme-Mutated Nihilism. Social media variations of "We're so fucked" are so ubiquitous after any dramatic (or, perhaps, more importantly, perceived dramatic) socio-political event that genuine concern, bleak disbelief, and shrug emojis are nearly indistinguishable from one another. But the instinctual response to reading apocalyptic text ostensibly directed towards you is invariably the same. Your brain releases another round of norepinephrine causing that flutter through your heart, that sweat to form under your arms, thus ruining your day, your night, your Shabbat. In short, we are consistently, repeatedly fucked by "We're so fucked." So why the fuck are we still letting this happen to ourselves?

Genuine concern, bleak disbelief, and shrug emojis.

Twitter averages 500 million tweets a day — roughly 6,000 tweets every second — so there's no easy way to sift through a day's worth of global tweets, much less a news item's average three-day shelf life. Instead, I ran a few keyword searches regarding Ginsberg's death through Martin Hawksey's Twitter Archiving Google Sheet (TAGS), a nifty program allowing for sample size bulk collections of search phrases and terms. The results? A dramatic, if somewhat predictable, increase in variations of shouting "We're so fucked" into the Internet ether.

Here, for example, we see a clear spike in messages containing both the terms "RBG" and "fucked" (TAGS can't search apostrophe-containing phrases like "We're so fucked") immediately following Justice Ginsberg's death. From there, it's a steady, nearly uniform decline in similar content before another, even more dramatic spike upwards begins, presumably coinciding with Trump's nomination of Amy Coney Barrett for the Supreme Court. Google Trends shows similar results for slightly augmented searches, too. Very few people are likely to search for "We're so fucked," but many would potentially hazard an, "Are we fucked?"

Whatever could have caused that recent rise in searches?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯Google Trends

Collective grief has long been known to be an effective method of coping with immense loss. COVID-19 may have shattered the traditional methods of this psychological processing, but even without a pandemic's massive cultural disruption, what can collective social media grieving actually accomplish? Where does the sentiment, "We're so fucked," enter into the Kübler-Ross model of the Five Stages of Grief?

Where does, "We're so fucked," enter into the Five Stages of Grief?

The truth is this: it doesn't. If anything, these levels of online interaction can easily make things far worse for one's mental health. "We're so fucked" is a self-centering sentiment, adding yourself to the collective of "fucked" peoples. And yet, chances are if you have the time to tweet "We're so fucked" or something similar atop a link to the latest HuffPost outrage op-ed concerning a Trump power move or the newest damning climate change report, you aren't directly "fucked." At the very least, you aren't the first in line for it. This is because the real fucked peoples generally aren't tweeting about it, or writing essays criticizing others for doing so. They're too busy being fucked.

"We're so fucked" and all its variants are just armchair defeatism. It's performative despair to satiate dopamine cravings. What's more, using social media to convey these ideas is often actively harmful. I guarantee you that no one has ever scrolled across someone's "We're so fucked" tweet and its accompanying link to something horrifying and felt better for it.

"We're so fucked" is as brutal a statement as it is pointless. Your announcement regarding our impending demise from within the digital town square adds nothing to our collective processing or your own internalization of any given day's horrors. If you truly believed the world is so fucked, then you'd be getting your house in order instead of farting around on social media. If that's not the case, then get to work un-fucking it for those around us who need it most. To once again paraphrase a line from Deadwood, a show with nearly 3,000 usages of the word "Fuck": “Pain or damage don't end the world. Or despair, or fucking beatings. The world ends when you're dead. Until then, you've got more punishment in store. Stand it, and give some back.”